When Michael Kuluva's back gave out while walking to one of his college classes at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising six years ago, he never expected what would come next.
"I thought I might have a kidney stone because the pain was so predominant," he says. "When that was ruled out by my urologist, I was told to go to a rheumatologist. I lit up like a Christmas tree. All my joints lit up with inflammation."
At just 28, Kuluva found out he had rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic disease that affects joints in the body and causes pain, swelling, and redness, as well as fatigue and stiffness, says the CDC.
Although the majority of the estimated 1.3 million Americans who have RA are 40- to 60-year-old women, RA diagnoses in young adults like Kuluva is not uncommon. And while the symptoms of RA are hindering at any age, they're especially problematic for people whose careers depend on their joints working properly — like fashion design.
Not long before Kuluva's diagnosis, he was already a New York Fashion Week veteran, skyrocketing his career after collaborating with Just Dance 4 on an unforgettable runway show. Little did he know, he would soon be spending his time undergoing tests at the Mayo Clinic and going back and forth out of remission for years to come.
The thing about RA is that it's there for good, and there's not a whole lot that can be done. There are treatments that can help people manage the pain and swelling, but sometimes the flare-ups — whether from overexertion, poor sleep, stress, or an infection — can be so debilitating that those who suffer from the condition can barely get out of bed in the morning. So for someone who makes their living drawing, designing, and creating clothing lines, those symptom episodes are unbearable.
"It really limits my drawing and sewing capabilities sometimes, so I have great assistants to help out when my hands are unable to do what I want them to do, or my elbows won't move on a certain day," Kuluva says. "Being my own boss with my company, I'm able to be more flexible."
Luckily, Kuluva isn't letting RA take control of his life. Instead, he decided to stop hiding behind the condition and instead highlight it in the only way he knows how: through a fashion show.
"This year, I knew I didn't have anything to lose. I really wanted to help spread awareness with younger people," he says. "So why not put it on the runway and put it in everyone's faces so they can have a better understanding of the disease?"
You'll see exactly where our pain is; where we feel pressure. You can view it from the clothing.
RA is much more than just your grandma's arthritis, and to put an end to the stigma, Kuluva teamed up with Seth Ginsberg, president and co-founder of CreakyJoints, a leading patient advocacy organization for arthritis. By working together, Kuluva's latest Tumbler and Tipsy collection has made an impact in more ways than one this year.
"We want to help people understand something they've maybe heard about, but don't necessarily know about," says Ginsberg, who was diagnosed with spondyloarthritis, a type of arthritis that attacks the spine, and sometimes the joints of the arms and legs, when he was 13 years old. "I'd like for people to be inspired to identify ways they can manage their arthritis successfully and follow in his footsteps in whatever it is they're passionate about."
As far as the collection goes, it still stays true to Kuluva's iconic, fun-loving brand, but this year some new additions have been added to his playful designs.
"I created very sporty, spandex-like material and garments that emphasize different bursts that would be on your elbows or different joints," Kuluva says. "When an outfit is completely worn, all the different joints light up with these bursts. You'll see exactly where our pain is; where we feel pressure. You can view it from the clothing."
By bringing arthritis to the forefront in a place where women and men of all ages gather, he hopes he makes his fans think differently about the condition and who it affects.
"Even though we don't look like we're suffering every day, we are. I hope people have the passion and awareness, and I also hope they get checked out themselves," Kuluva says. "Above all, we really want to put an end to this disease."
If you or someone you know has arthritis, visit CreakyJoints.com for resources and support.